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Another Bartow bummer: Owls fall at UAB in OT

In an ill-fated quest to check a big item off their bucket list, the FAU Owls came inches short of the bucket they needed.

But after missing the connection on a transition alley-oop pass that would have redeemed a rough second half and beaten UAB at the buzzer, the Owls got outplayed in overtime—and left Bartow Arena still winless in program history against the Blazers on their home floor.

This time the score was 76-73. The short-term consequence: Their seven-game winning streak over, the 20th-ranked Owls (18-5) dropped to a second-place tie with Charlotte in the American Athletic Conference with 8-2 records, behind 9-1 South Florida. The longer-term consequence of a loss that will sting and burn for many reasons: TBD. The most difficult stretch of the AAC schedule comes next for the Owls, beginning with a game at noon Sunday at Wichita State eminently more challenging with such little time to regroup in execution and reset emotionally.

“We have a lot of challenges,” said FAU coach Dusty May, whose team spent Thursday night in Birmingham with plans to bus to Atlanta for a flight to Kansas this afternoon.

“We’ll have to take care of our bodies, try to get some rest,” he said. “It’s life on the road. We’ll have to figure out a way to clean up a few things and bring our best game, our A effort, to the Shockers, who we have a lot of respect for.”

The Owls are now 0-8 all-time against UAB at ever-raucous Bartow and 0-2 when coming in ranked and on a winning streak. A year ago, FAU was ranked 19th, highest in program history at the time, and had won 20 straight. But guard Eric Gaines scored a team-high 21 points as the Blazers stopped the Owls cold 86-77. This time Gaines (pictured via UAB athletics shooting over Nick Boyd, Johnell Davis, Nick Boyd and Brenen Lorient) scored just 16 and missed a go-ahead 3 on UAB’s final possession in regulation. But he may have saved the game for the Blazers with an effort play at the other end.

Forward Christian Coleman rebounded Gaines’ miss—one of UAB’s 14 offensive rebounds, and more on them later—but rushed up an off-balance drive that missed. Jalen Gaffney tracked down the rebound on the wing for FAU with about 5 seconds left, threaded his way through traffic at full speed. Ahead of him, 7-foot Vlad Goldin had beaten everyone else to the basket and, also at full-speed was calling for a lob. Gaffney saw him and from near the free-throw line sent it Goldin’s way. In between the two was Gaines. His full-out leap did not tip the pass as he hoped, but it may have forced Gaffney to throw the ball a tick higher—the difference between a two-handed dunk a split-second before the backboard lit and the ball glancing off Goldin’s fingers with the game still tied 67-67.

From the bench, May thought he was watching the winning play.

“It looked like a great pass,” he said. “The floor’s broken, Gaff’s pushing it … What poise to lay that thing right by the rim. I’m not sure if someone got in the way, or if it was high or wide, but what great poise by him. Yeah, in my mind, it felt like we were going to dunk that in and get out of here before overtime.”

The Owls also could have extended the game 5 more minutes by sinking either of two 3 attempts at the end of overtime. But in hindsight, the near miss at the end of regulation turned out to be their last best chance.

That’s because the Owls had their first two shots in overtime blocked, missed the next four and wound up 2-for-9 overall. They never led in OT, although a missed 1-and-1 gave them the opportunity to extend the game. But Johnell Davis missed a 3 from the right wing and Nick Boyd missed from the left, and that was that.

The inability to capitalize on two extra tries in that first overtime possession proved even more painful when, moments later, scrappy offensive rebounding earned UAB two extra shots in a crucial possession that ended in a 3-pointer from guard Efrem “Butta” Johnson that made the lead 76-70 with 28 seconds left.

“We were happy with the looks we got and typically we convert those," May said. "Tonight we didn’t, and on nights you don’t you have to do all the other things. You have to be quicker to the basketball and physical on the glass. UAB (got)  three or four shots and then Johnson banged in the big one to take the lead from three to six.”

The Owls missed 18 of their 28 3s but were slightly even less effective in 2-point shooting, missing 33 of 49. Multiple misses at the rim were particularly frustrating. Davis led the Owls in scoring with 17 points but was just 5-for-21 overall and 1-for-5 from the arc. He and Goldin had a rough night up close, where two 6-foot-9 Blazers with long, active arms and intent to play physically made life tough for them.

Neither of whom were anywhere near Bartow Arena last season when the Blazers thwarted FAU. Both were tearing up the junior college landscape before transferring to UAB.

Yaxel Lendeborg, who was a two-time JUCO All-American and led all junior college players in rebounding last season, scored a team-high 17 points against FAU and pulled down an otherworldly 21 rebounds. He’d already had an 18-rebound game against Tulane and a 23-and-16 game against Memphis. But he'd managed just eight points and five boards last month when FAU beat UAB 86-73 at The Elly.

“He was determined. He played to win. He looked exhausted in overtime but kept fighting, fighting, fighting,” May said.

Coleman, who also was a highly rated JUCO recruit but may have one of the best backstories in all of college basketball, equaled his career high with 14 points and added five rebounds off the bench. He played 25 minutes, 8 over his average, because—in what at the time seemed a plus for FAU—starter Javian Davis drew his third and fourth fouls in one early-second-half sequence that ended with his pushing Goldin to the floor. Coleman’s backstory? A 6-foot-1 high school graduate, he was out of basketball and working at Walmart for two years before a shocking 8-inch growth spurt sent him on the path from NAIA to JUCO to Division 1.

“I thought Lendeborg’s ability to get them extra possessions and control the paint was key, and I thought Coleman came off the bench and gave them great minutes on the interior and was able to handle the paint,” May said.  He noted in particular that the two were well schooled on Davis’ array of shot fakes.

“We didn’t finish around the rim nearly well enough .. but they were very disciplined, stayed down on shot fakes. They didn’t bite on the fakes, and made shots tough for us,” May said.

Javian Davis had just cut a 39-32 FAU halftime lead to 43-38. After he drew a foul for entangling with Goldin at the Owls' end in a fight for position, Goldin stared him down and he retaliated by shoving Goldin. Both players drew technicals for their trouble, Davis’ accrual putting him on the bench with four fouls.

But in came Coleman. After a layup from Lendeborg, Coleman scored on a dunk and two layups to put UAB up 46-43.

The Owls trailed until Johnell Davis made two free throws to provide a 65-64 lead.

Needing a stop, they got one—only to surrender an offensive rebound that led to a tying free throw.

Goldin then hit a short jumper that made it 67-65 with 1:35 left.

Needing another stop, the Owls got one—only to surrender another offensive rebound, which led to a tying layup that wound up the last points of regulation.

That’s largely how the game went for FAU from halftime on. UAB outrebounded the Owls over the final 25 minutes 26-19 and did more with its 14 overall offensive rebounds than the Owls did with their overall 16.

Alijah Martin (14 points), Brandon Weatherspoon (12) and Gaffney (nine) capitalized on occasional openings. By and large, though, UAB stymied FAU by switching from one defense to another, including a 1-3-1 zone. The switching defenses and physical play at the rim were one matter. FAU’s inconsistency moving the ball was another.

“The times we were able to get it up with good spacing and knew where to look, we thought we had success,” May said. “Then there were times they’d switch defenses in mid-possession and it’s tough. You want to call a timeout and get organized, but you know in games like this, you have to play off concepts, you have to play basketball. And usually the teams that do really share the ball and move it and have some success against it.

"When the ball gets stuck, like it did for us tonight, they’re much, more effective because they’re constantly changing and trying to keep you on balance.”

More consistent ball movement is certain to be a topic among the Owls before tipoff Sunday. Among other things.

Said May: “We’re going to have to do a lot of things better if we’re going to find ways to play at a championship level consistently.”

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